Study Shock: How familiar are you with your international students’ pain points?

How well are your international students adapting to the tacit expectations of your learning and assessment processes? If you are actively targeting international students, you need to get a handle on your CIP (Culturally Inclusive Pedagogy)!

As part of my ongoing research into tacit knowledge, I recently came across a very interesting article concerning International Students. Maribel Blasco released a paper in 2015 entitled, Making the tacit explicit: rethinking culturally inclusive pedagogy in international student academic adaptation. She posits that, “ The data show how a major source of confusion for these students has to do with the tacit logics and expectations that shape how the formal steps of the learning cycle are understood and enacted locally, notably how learning and assessment moments are defined and related to one another.” (P. 86) This resonated with my times as the Dean of a business college in Vancouver, Canada that catered exclusively to international students, as well as my subsequent work around the globe.

“Theoretically, the article draws on tacit knowledge and sense-making theories to analyse student narratives of their encounter with the Danish system for inclusion from the learner to the educational institution.” (p. 86) Students coming from different countries, each with it’s own unique approach to learning and assessment, may never be able to fully grasp your institutions processes, rules, culture, etc. from a general student manual. Thus the concept of CIP (Culturally Inclusive Pedagogy). Which means an institution needs to consider a number of educational dichotomies:

  • rote learning vs critical thinking
  • extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation
  • power distance and high/low uncertainty avoidance
  • democratic vs authoritarian teaching

How many of these concepts have you considered when composing a student manual?

course cycle

Learning Cycle Cognitive Dissonance: Pain Point Examples
In 2008 I was one of the founders of Canadian College in Vancouver, BC. As there was a sister ESL school, the college made use of the same marketing channels and 95% of the students were international students.   Having worked with international students the previous 5 years in various capacities, I thought I had a good handle being able to set up the college to minimize the kind of cognitive dissonance mentioned in this article. Reality check! About 2/3 of the way through the first semester I had to completely rewrite the student manual along with a number of course and institutional documents for the following reasons:

Prepping for Class
Article: The research found that International Students from certain countries had trouble coming to grips with the fact that pre-reading was not monitored, nor was much of it on the exam.

My experience was similar. Students from Western Europe understood pre-reading was necessary for class discussion. Students from Eastern Europe were more familiar with scanning the textbook, then post-class reading important sections. North Asian students did little pre-reading, and my Saudi students had the computer read to them from the digital PDF books we were using.

During Class
The article refers to a number of students coming from countries where questioning a teacher was strongly discouraged and thus were uncomfortable with the informal almost peer-like relationship of the teachers in Denmark and even distrusted this arrangement feeling like it could work against them.

My experience with students from Eastern Europe and Russia was similar. It took many of them quite a while to not only questions some of the comments coming from teachers, but giving their opinion. Students from Latin American countries loved lively group work, but it took North Asian students a while to not only participate, but to see how these activities greatly added to what their learning moments.

The article mentions that certain international students had trouble completing self-directed assignments and projects that led to student stress and poor grades. There even seemed to be quite a bit of confusion about assignment weighting.

I had Russian students that were used to only oral exams, Asian students who had issues with plagiarism (even though it was thoroughly explained), and many others that had real troubles with the critical thinking behind short case studies of exam essay questions.

The article concludes with a series of possible questions to ask at specific times in the learning cycle in order to extricate the tacit assumptions being made. However at this point, I am curious how readers would answer the following question. If you were producing a piece of software, whom would you prefer to write the technical manual or online guide? An SME who wrote the program, OR someone familiar with the software specifications but who takes a ‘users’ perspective? The major problem with having someone too close to a project (software, course, game, app) write the user (student) manual is that they make many unconscious assumptions about prior knowledge of a step of process, which makes it difficult to see from a variety of perspectives. Quite often it is much easier for a pair of ‘fresh eyes’ to see what those too close to the process can’t.


So again I ask, how familiar are you with your international students’ pain points?



Based on the concepts of this article and my own experiences, I have developed a three-phase process to help institutions uncover their tacit assumptions with regards to learning and assessments. Other than having a pair of experienced ‘fresh eyes’, why else might you consider this form of audit?

The ROI is pretty obvious:
-Greater retention rates
-Increased completion rates
-Increased student success rates
Any or all three can lead to increased financial growth, more word-of-mouth referrals, better marketing stories, and a potential for more institutional partnerships.

Feel free to contact me to discuss what a TK audit at your institution would look like.


One thought on “Study Shock: How familiar are you with your international students’ pain points?

  1. Pingback: A Philosophy of Learning (& Education) |

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